the rigorous m

bits and bobs, quotes and catching up

Archive for July, 2009

on productive anger

Posted by rigorousm on July 23, 2009


  • Historiann’s Lessons for Girls, number one: Anger. (here) Part of the series Lessons for Girls. (here)

“I’ve got another version of Snow White’s story I like to tell:  Instead of a smiling, simpering dip$hit who simply loves scrubbing the stairs, Snow White sneaks away one day to raise an army.  (She makes sure break that tattletale Magic Mirror first, so that he can’t rat her out.)  Snow White delivers a stirring speech in a clandestine meeting at the local cathedral, where the women and men of the kingdom agree to enlist in her cause against the usurper queen.  She returns to the castle in gleaming armour, and while her army overwhelms the queen’s guards, she chops off the queen’s head with her broadsword, and displays it on a pike from the castle’s highest tower.  And of course, the kingdom becomes a republic with a constitution and an elaborate system of shared governance; Snow White stays on as a cabinet secretary.  Without anger, that course of action is simply impossible.  Without anger, you’re at the mercy of forest animals, dwarves, and handsome princes, all of whom have their own agendas should they choose to help you out.”


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shopping in america

Posted by rigorousm on July 19, 2009

Poor Shops

In the land of consumption where everything must be thrown away so you can rush and buy new goods, in the land of standardized production, one learns, surprisingly, that there is a whole underworld market of goods which no one would ever imagine could be bought or sold in America. There are huge stores of second-rate goods, as in the Italian area of Chicago, which are the same as the stores downtown except that the goods are rejects which exude an air of poverty even when they are new. And then there is the whole business of second-hand goods which I thought was a prerogative of New York’s Orchard Street, that incredible market street in the poor Jewish quarter, but then you find it exists everything; there is a world in America where nothing is thrown away; in Chicago there is an area that is now Mexican, last year it was Italian, and the Mexican shopkeepers have taken over the shops with their own goods and along with Mexican things they continue to sell the old Italian stock. There are also bookshops for the poor where secondhand paperbacks and magazines are sold, as well as a whole range of specialist books, particularly in immigrant languages, Spanish, Greek, Hungarian (not Italian, because Italian immigrants usually don’t know Italian as a written language). What emerges as the common cultural denominator of these shops is superstition. In Detroit there is an incense shop, which displays in its window the different kinds of incense required by the various religions, as well as incense for voodoo and witchcraft ceremonies, Catholic religious images, sacred books, conjuring tricks, playing cards, pornographic books. Sidney G. tells me that once the owner, seeing him just browsing, chased him out of the shop: it is likely that in the backshop they make love philtres or other magic potions for their clientele which is black-Italian-Mexican. In the Mexican quarter in Chicago, there is a shop in which a gipsy reads your palm.

-Italo Calvino, “American Diary 1959-1960” pp 71

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ANTH384 – gifts & goods notes: gewertz and graeber

Posted by rigorousm on July 11, 2009

2-10-2009 – Deborah Gewertz

Social determinism is a functionalist application of Mauss: the economy embedded in society, its structure determines the economy.

Leftover notes:

  • Creation of a market-based economy — how did it come about? (CF “Our Obsolete Market Mentality”) How does one explain western capitalism? Is it actually as exceptional as people suggest? (The concern about this as a post-war immediacy: the article was published in an anti-communist, conservative magazine.) What is the role of the non-western/non-capitalist economy in ethnography — as a cultural alternative?
  • Modernity as progress: is freedom just a utilitarian freedom? (CF Brave New World)

2-12-2009 – Lee and Gewertz

Recap: Polanyi’s functionalism assumes that economy is a function of society, and a cycle of forces are all aimed at creating order. It argues for the necessity of being social (unlike Hobbes). This is problematic insofar as it assumes that cultures are unconscious, static, and individual lives are arbitrary within a culture. It privileges the action-potential of institutions to the exclusion of individual actors.


  • What are the advantages of keeping complementarity? Political self-interest, gendered division of labor (embedded social structure). There are (in this article) two differing modes of relating that are not structural, two ways of being that processually generate order. SCHISMOGENESIS: the generation of social cleavages leading to differentiation, the schism that orders. (Symmetrical relations, e.g., titat for tat, vs. complementarity, e.g., the Cold War arms race.)
  • In this application of complementary schismogenesis, exchange is not about distribution qua distribution but generating splits in order to facilitate relations of dependence. Thus, sago-producers provide calories necessary for existence while fish-providers offer safety. An interdependent whole in which trading is a way to avoid war and receive goods.
  • Gewertz’ influnces: Marxist history; world system dependency theorists (some places are dependent and subservient to others); social acquiescence.
  • two possibilities of barter/gimwali: (1) naked capitalism (self-interest) (2) replication of relations.

2-17-2009 – David Graeber

On trying to fit the social and material considerations into an explanation of economic anthropology.

  • sociology’s value: normative – what should be wanted. Consists of social stereotypes/representations and the individuals to desire to fulfill them. What is “good,” what “ought,” the notion of “family values.” An acquired value (not ineherent). Where it fails: comparisons, particularly cross-cultural.
  • economic’s value: relative – concrete sacrifices made in order to attain a particular object. Utilitarianism. Ideas of “minimum/maximum” in which value is a number meaningful to a particular individual (“the benefit to ME”). Individuals are the source of choice, even within a social world and when informed by taste or preference. Everything is reified and caculated rationally (Graeber says all actions are made this way according to economists).
  • linguistic’s value: distinction  – the extent to which a noun is not like other nouns. Structural linguistics create a total coherent system within which things are assigned to different categories; value is encoded within language.

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2-5-2009: Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society” and Polanyi, “Economy as Instituted Process”

Posted by rigorousm on July 10, 2009

To recap: Mauss wrote against a utilitarian theory of economic action/exchange and for a social basis of the economy in which it is a total system. Value does not inhere in need but in common-wealth, which explains the obligations of giving and receiving as well as the idea that people are fundamentally interdependent. (N.B. The similarities between Mauss and Durkheim in their notions about solidarity (the tradition of functionalism), all elements aren’t necessarily strategic, political; behavior and patterns exist to forward the social whole.

French anthropology: Durkheim -> Mauss -> Levi-Strauss -> Structuralism

British anthropology: Mauss -> Polanyi -> Anthropological Functionalism

Karl Polanyi’s stance: society and social factors determine the economy. (This is a reversal of classical political economic theories proposed by Marx, Adam Smith, and other materialists. More specifically, as a critique of Marx’s theory of historical materialism (the conditions of production determine the conditions of society), Polanyi dismisses economic evolution.) In the tradition of functionalism, Polanyi brings Mauss to anthropology based on his interpretation of Mauss.

  • substantive definitions of economy. 2 meanings to ‘substantive’ (1) characteristic of behavior and choices (2) an actual thing/complex of things (3) the science of economy, something actually existing in reality with which one can determine laws (formal)
  • embeddedness
  • Economy as an instituted process: in a given society, some people can (are allowed to) act economically (they are “the hands”). Not all objects are equally allowed to be exchanged, the list thereof is determined by society.

Sahlins makes an argument for social determinism regarding hunter/gatherers in “The Original Affluent Society.”

  • how does the idea of the “ecological noble savage” act as an implicit moral critique of western capitalistic society?
  • Is environmental determinism crucial for Sahlins?
  • Social evolution =/= economy; efficacy of production does not lead to culture. (as a formal economic analysis with an evolutionary bent might suggest)

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in honor of the fourth, two quotes about the usa

Posted by rigorousm on July 7, 2009

The Cars
The most amusing thing when you arrive is seeing that in America all the cars are enormous. It is not that there are small ones and big ones, they are all huge, sometimes almost laughably so: the cars we consider only for major tourist trips are normal for them, and even the taxis have really long tailfins. Among my friends, the only New Yorker with a small car is Barney Rosset, ever the nonconformist: he has one of those tiny little cars, a red Isetta.
I am very tempted to hire immediately an enormous car, not even to drive it, just for the psychological sense of being in control of the city. But if you park in the street, you have to go down at 7 a.m. to move it to the other side of the street, since the parking restrictions alternate between the two sides of the street.
And a garage costs a fortune.

– Italo Calvino, Hermit in Paris: autobiographical writings, pp 22

The solutions and methodologies contained in the wiseacre effusions of these repulsive life coaches are usually reducible to that very American precept: “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. This could almost be the very motto of the United States. It seems so perfect, so ingenious, so satisfying. To understand its full meaning you have first to be aware that ‘lemonade’ to an American represents more than just a drink: according to the pleasingly cosy mythology of small-town America a child’s first experience of the enterprise economy traditionally comes when they set up a lemonade stand in the road outside their house. You and I might have made a cake for the village fete or raised pennies for the guy, but Bart and Lisa will set up a lemonade stall at which kindly disposed adults stop and spend a few quarters, nodding their heads in benevolent approval at the reassuring signs of good old American entrepreneurialism in the next generation. So – ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ is not just a way of saying make the best of a bad job, it is really a call to enterprise, initiative, self-help and finding ways to transform a disappointment into a dollar. Turn a problem into a challenge, a challenge into an opportunity, blah-di-blah di-blah. Welcome to the world of the business self-help book and life coach course, the world of observations so bowel-shatteringly trite, so arse-paralysingly obvious, so ball-bouncingly commonplace they make your nose bleed. (read in full here)

– Stephen Fry, “America’s Place in the World,” presented in London 30th April 2009 at The Spectator Lecture, Royal Geographical Society.

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vulgar doers

Posted by rigorousm on July 1, 2009

“This is a culture which sets up specialized institutes so that people’s bodies can come together and touch and, at the same time, invents pans in which the water does not touch the bottom of the pan, which is made of a substance so homogeneous, dry, and artificial that not a single drop sticks to it, just like those bodies intertwined in ‘feeling’ and therapeutic love, which do not touch- not even for a moment. This is called interface or interaction. It has replaced face-to-face contact and action. It is also called communication, because these things really do communicate: the miracle is that the pan bottom communicates its heat to the water without touching it, in a sort of remote boiling process, in the same way as one body communicates its fluid, its erotic potential, to another without that other ever being seduced or even disturbed, by a sort of molecular capillary action. The code of separation has worked so well that they have even managed to separate the water from the pan and to make the pan transmit its heat as a message, or to make one body transmit its desire to the other as a message, fluid to be decoded. This is called information and it has wormed its way into everything, like a phobic, maniacal leitmotiv, which affects sexual relations as well as kitchen implements.

– Jean Baudrillard, “Astral America” pp. 32-33, America.

“History and Marxism are like fine wines and haute cuisine: they do not really cross the ocean, in spite of the many impressive attempts that have been made to adapt them to new surroundings.”

– “Utopia Achieved” pp. 79.

glaucous (adj) 1. Of a sea-green color; of a dull green passing into grayish blue. 2. (Bot.) Covered with a grayish, bluish, or whitish waxy coating or bloom that is easily rubbed off.

“The multiplication of individual sects should not fool us: the important point is that the whole of America is preoccupied with the sect as a moral institution, with its imeediate demand for beatification, its material efficacity, its compulsion for justification, and doubtless also with its madness and frenzy.”

– “Utopia Achieved” pp. 91.

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practical poetry

Posted by rigorousm on July 1, 2009

After you’ve been to bed together for the first time,
without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance,
the other party very often says to you,
Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you,
what’s your story? And you think maybe they really and truly do

sincerely want to know your life story, and so you light up
a cigarette and begin to tell it to them, the two of you
lying together in completely relaxed positions
like a pair of rag dolls a bored child dropped on a bed.

You tell them your story, or as much of your story
as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say,
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, until the oh
is just an audible breath, and then of course

there’s some interruption. Slow room service comes up
with a bowl of melting ice cubes, or one of you rises to pee
and gaze at himself with mild astonishment in the bathroom mirror.
And then, the first thing you know, before you’ve had time
to pick up where you left off with your enthralling life story,
they’re telling you their life story, exactly as they’d intended to all

and you’re saying, Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, the vowel at last becoming
no more than an audible sigh,
as the elevator, halfway down the corridor and a turn to the left,
draws one last, long, deep breath of exhaustion
and stops breathing forever. Then?

Well, one of you falls asleep
and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth,
and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.

– Tennessee Williams, “Life Story.”

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